5 Minutes With… Emirates Old Trafford’s Angela Hodson on managing the challenges of COVID-19 within corporate hospitality

In the latest instalment of our events and corporate hospitality industry interview series, we spoke to Angela Hodson (pictured), Sales Director at Emirates Old Trafford, about how the famous venue has adapted for a COVID-safe future, how learnings from managing bio-secure sporting bubbles can be applied to business events and the return of live…

Q: Emirates Old Trafford is a world-class cricket venue and a premium event and hospitality facility – how challenging has the fallout from the pandemic been for the club and the business?

When the Coronavirus pandemic struck globally in March, both professional cricket and our corporate hospitality and events business came grinding to a halt and left us, like many other business and industries, facing up to the devastating short-term impacts.

As an organisation, Lancashire Cricket and Emirates Old Trafford has invested hugely in its venue infrastructure in recent years to protect and grow commercial revenues and improve the fan and user experience of all attendees. Our multi-purpose event and hospitality space, The Point, and the on-site Hilton Garden hotel, which opened in 2017, have been critical in that sense and significant drivers of non-cricket revenues.

The uniqueness of our site – with the cricket pitch, 150-room four-star hotel and significant parking all on one 17-acre multi-purpose and interconnected venue – enabled us to create a bio-secure environment for players, staff and media. As a result, we were selected as a host venue for England’s Test Match Series against the West Indies this summer and, subsequently, became the first venue in the UK to welcome any overseas visitors during lockdown when the 39-strong touring party touched-down on June 9.

The successful delivery of the West Indies fixture gave the England & Wales Cricket Board the confidence to use the venue to host further fixtures, with 21 days of international cricket played in total, which saw the England, Pakistan and Australia teams all staying on site for prolonged periods. During this period more than 3,500 Covid-19 tests were administered at the venue, with all tests returning negative results.

Hosting these games provided some financial respite, but we now face up to the perennial challenge of sustaining non-cricket revenues over the winter months. The most recent Government restrictions on business events have effectively closed conferencing and exhibition spaces by limiting them to only 30 people. That is disastrous for the bigger venues, such as us, and it’s going to be a challenging winter, without question.

Q: What did the club learn from hosting an international sporting event in a bio-secure bubble? Are there special safety procedures that will be transferable to business events?

A: I cannot overstate enough what a huge undertaking it was to host behind-closed-doors cricket, with everything that went into that from a health and safety perspective. Ahead of the fixtures, we re-wrote our Risk Assessments and Standard Operating Procedures for all departments, including; rigorous deep cleaning measures; providing PPE for all players and staff on-site; social distancing measures in place adhering to Government guidelines and; increased hand sanitisers at every touch point for all on-site.

To be able to host an event of this magnitude and return zero positive Covid tests from over 3,500 that were administered, is a fantastic achievement and we hope that it provides reassurance to the wider events industry and potential clients.

We appreciate the times we are in and the fact that many conference and events business are struggling. When events can formally return, all venue owners and operators will have a huge responsibility in ensuring the safety of event attendees.

To that end, we launched a campaign called ‘Safe in One Place’ aimed at sharing the knowledge and experience that we gained turning Emirates Old Trafford into a bio-secure environment for cricket with the wider events industry. This included downloadable best-practice documentation from our website and hosting a webinar with leading industry figures to discuss the key learnings and debate the way forward for event operators.

Lancashire Cricket and Emirates Old Trafford will continue to share knowledge and support event operators up and down the country. We understand acutely just how hard the market has been impacted by the pandemic and how vital it is to have clear guidance to enable the hosting of commercial events, which are the lifeblood of the industry.

Q: Consumer confidence will be a big factor in large scale events returning quickly when the industry is re-opened. What is your sense on the appetite for a return of business events?

Having personally attended several events in recent weeks and spoken to a huge number of clients and event bookers, there is a clear desire to bring people together for face-to-face events.

The frustration for many in the industry right now is the inconsistencies that currently exist within the Covid-19 restrictions when comparing pubs, shopping centres and indoor theatres to business and outdoor events. Hosting cricket in a bio-secure bubble has provided so much insight and it is frustrating that we cannot yet use the lessons learned for business events.

For Emirates Old Trafford, we’ve integrated the operational best practice from behind-closed-doors cricket into our business event hosting processes and we have total confidence that we’re ready to host significant numbers in the venue safely, with immediate effect. For us, and the rest of the £84 billion event industry, it is now just a waiting game.

Having been through the process of hosting an international cricket event in a bio-secure bubble, it’s a huge competitive advantage for us compared to many venues, which have been completely closed during the whole pandemic. We hope this will reassure conference and event bookers. We are a venue that has tried and trusted protocols which we can draw upon and adapt for each individual client booking.

Q: Clearly, there will be some changes as and when full scale events do return – what differences are we attendees likely to experience?

A: There is no doubt there will be additional layers of biosecurity that guests will have to adhere to ensure their safety and that of all attendees. For example, we’ll take the temperature of all guests and ask them to fill in a health questionnaire on arrival at the venue. There will also be provision of PPE, as required, and one-way systems and social distancing signage throughout the site.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with clients and event bookers, who are keen to understand what the expectations will be. From their perspectives, the number one priority is safety. That said, there is also a worry that events will feel too clinical.

The key, when large scale events do return, will be to find a balance between complete security and safety – providing absolute confidence for all guests – whilst still delivering a first-class experience that is memorable and makes people want to return in the future. For hospitality to return we need to have the green light from the Government, but we certainly hope to have fans back in the ground for next summer fixtures and business guests sooner still.